Who Burns for the Perfection of Paper Poem by Martín Espada Summary, Notes and Line by Line Explanation in English for Students


The poem “Who Burns for the Perfection of Paper” was written by Martín Espada. It was first published in his poetry collection “City of Coughing and Dead Radiators” in 1993. The poem talks about the necessity of having human rights and social justice for everyone. The poem talks about the lives and efforts of the lower working class people that go unnoticed by everyone. In the first part of the poem, the poet talks about his own time working as a part timer in a production unit when he was a teenager. In the second part he shifts his focus to the issues of laws and human rights. He talks about the total disregard for social justice when writing these laws.

About the poet

Martin Espada was born in 1957 in New York, United StAtes. He is a Puerto Rican-American poet. He is also a professor of poetry at the University of Massachusetts. He has won multiple awards for his work including the Nairon Book Award for Poetry, the Guggenheim Fellowship for Creative Arts and the American Book Award.  Some of his famous works include “Imagine the Angel of Bread”, “El Coro” and “Poetry Like Bread.”


The poem is written in free-verse. The poem consists of 2 stanzas, both varying in length. The first stanza consists of 21 lines and the second stanza consists of 6 lines.

Lines 1-10

At sixteen, I worked after high school hours

at a printing plant

that manufactured legal pads:

Yellow paper

stacked seven feet high

and leaning

as I slipped cardboard

between the pages,

then brushed red glue

up and down the stack.


In these lines, the speaker talks about his work experience at a printing plant when he was sixteen years old. The job involved manufacturing legal pads, which are essentially stacks of yellow paper. The speaker describes the physical aspects of his work, such as stacking the yellow paper, inserting cardboard between the pages, and applying red glue to bind them together. The mention of the paper stacked seven feet high creates an image of a substantial and somewhat precarious pile.

The speaker talks about how his role in the process was clear as he engaged in these manual tasks. The work environment is labor-intensive, with the speaker actively involved in the production line. The speaker uses colors, yellow paper, and red glue to add visual elements to the narrative, enhancing the experience of the workplace.


In these lines, the speaker talks about working at a printing plant when he was sixteen. His job was to make legal pads, which are stacks of yellow paper. He vividly describes the tasks involved, like stacking paper, putting cardboard in between, and using red glue to stick them together. The image of a seven-feet-high stack gives an idea of how much work there was.

The poet talks about actively participating in the manual labor of the production line. Colors like yellow paper and red glue are used to add visual elements to the story, making it more vivid. The poet highlights the physical and repetitive nature of manual work, especially for a young worker. The poet comments on the challenges and routine of such jobs and, more broadly, on the themes of labor and industry. 

Lines 11-21

No gloves: fingertips required

for the perfection of paper,

smoothing the exact rectangle.

Sluggish by 9 PM, the hands

would slide along suddenly sharp paper,

and gather slits thinner than the crevices

of the skin, hidden.

Then the glue would sting,

hands oozing

till both palms burned

at the punchclock.


In these lines, the speaker describes the work at the printing plant. He emphasizes the absence of gloves in the plant. This was done to maintain precision in handling the paper. He talks in detail about the process of smoothing the paper into an exact rectangle. He talks about how as the workday progressed, fatigue set in by 9 PM. The workers and the hands were no longer as alert and because of this, they encountered unexpectedly sharp paper.

This would result in the workers getting small cuts that are finer than the skin’s crevices. And after the cuts have been incurred, when the workers would move on to the next step of applying the glue, the application of glue would intensify the sensation, leading to oozing hands and a burning sensation in the palms, particularly when the workday concludes at the punch clock. Through the memory the speaker captures the physical challenges and discomfort associated with the demanding and detailed nature of the job.


In these lines, the poet paints a vivid picture of the demanding work at the printing plant. The absence of gloves signifies the need for precision in handling the paper, crucial for achieving perfection. The process of smoothing the paper into an exact rectangle is described with meticulous detail, highlighting the emphasis on precision. As the workday progresses, fatigue sets in, and the hands, losing their alertness, encounter sharp paper, resulting in cuts finer than the crevices of the skin.

The poet uses sensory details effectively to convey the discomfort, emphasizing the stinging sensation caused by glue application, leading to oozing hands and a burning feeling in the palms. This tactile imagery immerses the reader in the physical challenges faced by the workers. The reference to the punch clock signifies the conclusion of the workday, emphasizing the cyclical nature of their labor.

Lines 22-27

Ten years later, in law school,

I knew that every legal pad

was glued with the sting of hidden cuts,

that every open lawbook

was a pair of hands

upturned and burning.


In these lines, the speaker shifts the narrative to ten years later and recounts on his experience in law school. He makes a connection between the legal pads used in law school and says that it was similar to those he worked on in the printing plant. He reveals that every legal pad was metaphorically glued with the sting of the hidden cuts of the workers. Here he is referencing the physical toll and discomfort endured during the manufacturing process by the laborers. The open lawbook is compared to a pair of hands upturned and burning. This symbolizes the lasting impact of the labor on those who were involved in the production. This memory serves as a reminder of the challenges the speaker and many others like him had to encounter while working.


In these lines, the poet reflects on the enduring impact of his past work experience at the printing plant, connecting it to his later academic pursuits in law school. The poet metaphorically describes every legal pad as bearing the sting of hidden cuts, signifying the physical hardships embedded in the manufacturing process. The comparison of open law books to upturned and burning hands emphasizes the lasting impression of the labor on those involved. The poet employs poignant imagery to convey the enduring consequences of manual work, suggesting that even in an academic setting, the tactile memory of physical labor lingers. The themes revolve around the enduring effects of manual labor and the connection between past experiences and present moments.